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Lord Newby: The range of issues set out by the noble Lord have flowed in no small measure from the Joint Committee on Human Rights which, in a number of cases, has suggested that the Treasury should give more information about what is intended. Indeed, a letter was sent from the chair of that committee to the Chancellor on 2 February asking for a response on 14 February. I do not know whether the response has been forthcoming. I certainly have not seen it. If I had seen it, I think that I would feel much better informed in dealing with this whole raft of measures.
Lord Goldsmith: It was sent on 10 February. I hope that when the noble Lord has had a chance to read it he will feel not only better informed but reassured.
Lord Newby: I hope that I am both. But it would have been extremely helpful if the practice used in the response by the Government to our own Select Committee had been followednamely, that we were given an opportunity to see this material in advance of the Committee stage. I believe that I am not the only person who has not seen it.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: For clarification, was it the one that was sent to the chairman of our committee?
Lord Goldsmith: Yes. It was sent to the right honourable Jean Corston MP on 10 February 2005. I shall make inquiries as to its circulation. Perhaps I may respectfully make the point that the noble Lord was a member of that committee and might therefore have hoped to have received from his chairman a copy of the letter responding to the inquiries that he had.
If I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, knew that an answer to an inquiry to us should have been given by 14 February; it is now 24 February. Had he wished to know whether we had replied and had not otherwise had a chance to see the document in advance of this debate, I would of course have answered the question and provided him with a copy.
Baroness Noakes: Perhaps I may make a general point. It is always extremely difficult from the opposition Benches to find the resources to chase individual deadlines. But it is helpful, and often works, that the Bill team will alert the Minister to the need to circulate material that becomes available after certain events, such as Second Reading, and send it to Members of the Committee. Otherwise we are in an impossible position where we raise issues and discover material that has only just become available, meaning that we virtually wipe out the usefulness of the Committee stage, which puts much greater pressure on the later stages of the Bill.
It would be helpful if the noble and learned Lord and his staff could bear that in mind during the remainder of the conduct of the Bill.
Lord Goldsmith: I have made my point on that. Extensive reference has been made to the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. In its final sentence it said that a request for information by
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14 February was made. Indeed, the burden of the report was to say, "We would like more information on certain issues". That has been provided. I shall obviously look to see what arrangements we made but I do not believe it is inappropriate to say that those who have referred to the report might perhaps have asked whether there had been a reply, which should have been received 10 days ago but was received longer ago than that.
The noble Lord's series of amendments all would place an obligation to obtain prior judicial approval for any of the disclosures the Bill authorises. Under Clause 17 it would be disclosure within existing departments and disclosure between departments; and under Clause 18 it would be disclosure under the public interest function, disclosure for the purposes of civil proceedings and disclosure for the purposes of criminal proceedings.
As to the first of those, there is already sharing on a daily basis both within departments and, indeed, between these two departments. As the Explanatory Notes make clear, this has been happening since 1972 and is authorised by existing statute. It would be impossible for the department to carry out its business if now it was required to go to a judge to ask for permission each time it wanted to share information that it had been sharing for the past 30 years; or each time its prosecutors wanted to prosecute someone for evading tax it had to go to a judge first to say, "Please can we talk to our prosecutors and tell them what it is about"; or each time it wanted to sue for the recovery of tax in civil proceedings it was told, "You have got to go to a judge first to find out whether you are allowed to tell your civil people that they can sue for your money". I understand the point about safeguards, and I will deal with it. However, I respectfully say that the noble Lord's proposal to have prior judicial approval on each and every one of these occasions would be unduly burdensome, to put it mildly, as far as the department and the courts are concerned. It is not what happens at the moment and it is not necessary now.
However, I do not for a moment disagree with the noble Lord that it is important to have safeguards regarding information provided by taxpayers. Strong safeguards exist in the Bill. It contains the declaration of confidentiality, the obligation under Clause 18 to maintain confidentiality, the criminal offence which is created, and the whole code of disclosure which Clauses 17 to 21 set out. This is a very transparent form of disclosure.
The noble Lord makes a point based on European jurisprudence that it is necessary, for the purposes of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, that disclosure should be in accordance with the law. Well, here we arethe law is setting out in the Bill when disclosures may be made.
Strong safeguards are available. I shall not develop my point on Clause 20 again because I was taken gently to task by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, for spending a little bit of time on it before, but, as I have indicated, it provides a number of safeguards on the way in which information can be disclosed.
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Furthermore, the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act continue to apply to the operations of HMRC. It is not, with respect, necessary to set them out again on the purpose of the Bill. It is not, for example, necessary to say that a disclosure needs to be necessary and proportionate to the aim, because that is something which the Human Rights Act imposes overall.
The Government have taken the view that it is not necessary each time a Bill is passed to put into it obligations which appear under the Data Protection Act or the Human Rights Act. That is why the committee stated that it would be confusing and superfluous to draft on that basis. Given that Members of the Committee have not had an opportunity to see the letter which came from my right honourable friend two weeks ago to the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, it would probably be wearisome for me to go into detail, but I invite them to look at it and very much hope that it will reassure them. But I must resist the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, requiring prior judicial approval.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: These probing amendments were designed to raise this fundamental issue, and the noble and learned Lord agrees that there is a fundamental issue here. I wholly accept that in their present form they are not acceptable and would certainly not be retabled in that form.
I saw the letter to the chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it arrived. It rejected all our arguments, and, if I may say so, I did not think that the reasoning of rejection was at all sound. I did not want to take up time arguing what was really a side issue. Now, of course, people can judge what they think of the reasoning of the response. I do not mean any offence to the noble and learned Lord, but I thought that that was a wholly inadequate response, so I personally did not bother with it. I was not trying to conceal it from him, I just thought that it was irrelevant.
I am glad that the noble and learned Lord and I are at one on the principle of safeguards. We do not agree over whether they should be on the face of the Bill, as is proposed by the Joint Committee on Human RightsI believe that that is essential. But I take the point that safeguards are essential and I think that he takes it, too. But the safeguards that are provided, to which the noble and learned Lord referred, are manifestly inadequate for the purpose.
I remember the other interpretation from the letter that suggested, "Well, it's in the Bill, therefore it's according to law". But that was not the way that the committee looked at it. It said that "according to law" meant some form of legal control over the use of the powers in the Bill, which is quite different. I am grateful for that opportunity to address this matter, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
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